You don't often see the poor on TV. Writers don't seem to have the interest or life experience to grasp the struggles and indignities that come from being a part of the bottom one percent. However, the fourth episode of Atlanta goes there.
"The Streisand Effect" dovetails nicely with last week's "Go for Broke." When we last saw Earn, he was reporting his debit card as stolen to get out of paying the amount he (over)spent on a fancy night out with his girlfriend and baby mama Vanessa. If "Going for Broke" explored the absurdities of being broke—holding desperately onto what one has until payday arrives—then this week's episode is a more surrealist, dream-like state, the heady effect of for-real poverty. We open with Earn mid-daydream, attention drifting, as he waits outside for Paper Boi, who eventually appears from a smoke-filled establishment. As they discuss the particulars of a new Paper Boi song, "Pussy Relevance," they are rolled up on by a mysterious stranger, an apparent fan—and online troll—of Paper Boi.
I wouldn't have expected the appearance of a troll so early in Atlanta's first season, certainly not in an episode in which money and resources—and their conspicuous absence from people's lives, namely Earn's—are the primary narrative thrusts. But Donald Glover—the show's creator and star—wrote "The Streisand Effect" with high ideas in mind.
Donald Glover doesn't appear interested in positioning Earn as a down-on-his-luck everyman, bumbling his way from scenario to scenario. Neither does he seem interested in portraying Earn as a self-righteous, cash-strapped millennial, all lofty ideals and empty checking account. We know very little about Earn at this point; he stands at a distance from us, even as he seemingly ends up on a quest with Darius. A routine trip to the pawn shop, so Earn can pawn his phone for cash, turns into a kind of multi-stop odyssey when Darius informs Earn that trading the phone for a samurai sword in the shop could lead to more money than the $190 offered by the dealer. Earn takes the sword—he needs money.
The cloying, ethnically ambiguous troll "Zan" ridicules Paper Boi, both as a drug dealer and a rapper, with online videos and memes. Zan (whom the crew speculates is either Dominican, Indian, or half-Chinese, despite his claims of being Paper Boi's "nigga") is a bully who inspires Paper Boi to furiously type on his phone. Eventually, Paper Boi tracks down and confronts Zan at his pizza-delivery job. Zan reveals himself as an opportunist, someone motivated by money to build a following online via "likes" and shares, exploiting the music of Paper Boi, which, Zan argues, exploits Paper Boi's past, and whatever ethos he gleaned from selling drugs.
In Atlanta's rendering, the online troll is a capitalist converting attention into money. But are money and attention the real motivations behind racist and sexist memes? I doubt Glover is suggesting all trolls are misunderstood businesspeople trying to make a buck, but he offers a perspective worth considering. Namely, that being broke can lead to elaborate ways to improve one's social and financial status. Not a new idea, but I hadn't thought of trolls—especially those who harass celebrities—in this way before.
As for the melancholic and disconnected Earn, he appears to be in something of a fugue state. The samurai sword is traded for a muscular dog, who is then given over by Darius to a flannel-wearing stranger somewhere in the Georgia hills (perhaps near Stone Mountain, where Glover was raised). Darius celebrates as the dog is handed over, while Earn, perplexed, asks for the money promised. "September," Darius says—the muscular dog will breed with another dog to conceive puppies that'll sell for up to $4,000 each—and one can appreciate the distress on Earn's face, bordering on nausea. "Van needed that money," Earn says to Darius. "My daughter needed that money. Not in September, but today. See, I'm poor, Darius. And poor people don't have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor. I need to eat today, not in September."
For all of Earn's indignation, Darius points out the truth—if money was needed, maybe Earn should've pawned the phone for the $190 cash, but he wanted more, and Darius said he could get more. Earn's indignation falters and only despair remains. Being broke might be funny, but it spreads depression and destabilization throughout one's life. We know little about Earn, but we know the fright on his face, and so does Darius, who gives Earn his phone to pawn for money. The "thank you" that Earn utters is so meek, filled with a mix of relief and revulsion. It's the resigned appreciation from someone angry at needing to rely on others. Darius stands outside the car and opens the driver side door. He says, almost bouncing on his feet, "We're friends now." Friends are all Earn has left. His fortunes are tied to whether or not he can be equally generous to those who've given quite a bit to him. Time will tell.
Follow Mensah Demary on Twitter.
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10 PM on FX.